What kind of meaning gets created and what sort of choices are perceived when one is born into nothing, without family, without resources, without love? What happens when you are raised, wholly and completely, within a system that appears to have little interest in truly helping you and yet eagerly watches for—and expects—your next failure? This is the experiment created by Jenni Fagan; these are the questions that get answered in The Panopticon.
The panopticon was the brainchild of Jeremy Bentham, an eighteenth-century social philosopher. Designed as a semi-circular prison with a central watchtower, it was conceived so that all prisoners could be potentially watched at all times without them ever being certain when they were being observed.
In Jenni Fagan's book, no one is so sure of being watched as Anais Hendricks. The panopticon of the novel is now a residence for troubled youth, and is Anais’s latest stop in a long history. That history includes thirty-eight social workers and fifty-one placements by the age of fifteen, plus over one hundred police charges in the last sixteen months. Not to mention a policewoman in a coma, with only a hazy and drug-addled recollection by Anais of the events of the day or how she got blood on her skirt. By the numbers, one might argue that Anais is very troubled indeed; the careful observer might also notice that beneath her apparently troubled exterior lies an astonishing awareness of humanity and a set of well-developed and fiercely held morals.
The Panopticon is a fantastically well-written first novel. In Anais Hendricks, Jenni Fagan has created an intricate and insightfully drawn protagonist who is struggling to find meaning, connection, place, and family. Fagan's dialogue is brilliantly written, her characters are deftly drawn and yet wonderfully complex, and she casts an unflinching eye on what are often torturous events and painful truths. The Panopticon can in places be a very difficult book to read, and it is tempting at times to look away. It is a book that is not afraid to explore the depths of darkness and despair or to cast a casual eye over activities of unspeakable cruelty; it also has the capacity to find beauty and hope, and to hold out the possibility of redemption and reinvention. In the end, it is an exceptional book that ultimately rewards the persistent reader.
- Mark Mullaly